Deutsche Welle TV item november 2007

Yvo Verschoor on improvisation:

After I have accompanied a film, people frequently ask me which music I played. When I reply that everything was improvised, they are astonished. They often recognise pieces by Schumann, Chopin, Ravel or Messiaen.
They sometimes name other composers whose music I have never played, which astonishes me.

I like using the romantic and impressionist idiom in my improvisations, but whilst playing, I often do not know exactly where it comes from. Music, as it were, hangs in the air. I try to remain open and 'aim my antennae' to catch music and to be certain I play as well as possible.

Initially, people do not link classical or contemporary music to improvised music, which is generally associated with jazz. This is strange because much of what is called classical music nowadays started as improvisation. Traditional composers often improvised for hours before they chose a certain phrase, theme, combination or orchestration, and eventually wrote it down.

Jazz has existed for more than a century, and during that time several styles have developed, each with its own specific way of playing, rhythm, timing, harmonisation, and colouring of chords. Nevertheless, these different styles have two similarities. Firstly, there is always tension between metrum and rhythm, so that the music 'swings', which classical music lacks. Secondly, the role improvisation plays, which is important to each jazz style. In classical music, the composer usually improvises himself, mostly in his study, which the public never hear. In jazz music, the performing musicians usually improvise, not the composer.

picture: Martin Stoop

In order to improvise in any style, you have to recognize and become familiar with its characteristics. A rudimentary knowledge of a style is the least that is required.
Therefore, improvising doesn't mean 'just playing something'. Once you feel comfortable with a certain style, you try to tell your own story and perhaps develop a new style.

Many traditional composers have distilled their own style from studying and copying the compositions of their colleagues. Liszt studied and transcribed many works of Beethoven. Ravel and Debussy knew each other, were inspired by the same paintings and poems, and created similar musical images.

It is generally accepted that improvisation is an essential part of jazz music. What I do is less frequently done. I take the characteristics of several styles of music, from jazz to classical and world to pop, and borrow from and cite these for the musical accompaniment of silent films, theatre or poetry. Experience has taught me that the score under a film wins if you have a wide musical palette at your disposal. The accompaniment becomes more interesting when you are limited to one style. I cite and improvise on works by Mompou, who could recall the atmosphere of Spain with a few notes; Rachmaninoff's rich, wallowing chords; and Debussy's unique translation of movement into music. In this way, every emotion, atmosphere and time can be translated into music.

picture:Martin Stoop

As a film pianist, you usually try to play music that matches a certain scene, although sometimes it can be very difficult to know what is suitable. Take, for example, films about ancient Rome or Greece. No one knows what the music of the ancient Greeks and Romans sounded like. Therefore, whatever music you play is always an anachronism, which does not have to be a bad thing. A piece of gospel music can have a beautiful impact on a film such as 'Quo Vadis', when played with the scenes portraying the early Christians. You sometimes find the opposite works, such as playing Bruckner with certain Charlie Chaplin scenes, which has the result that Chaplin becomes even funnier. By putting charming music with gruesome scenes, you can make them bearable.

Basically two methods of silent film accompaniment exist. One is that a composer writes a complete score, which is performed by musicians. The other method is that the music is improvised. Historically both are correct, as this was the way films were accompanied. In the larger cities, an orchestra played the musical score, but in smaller ones, it was usually a pianist who improvised.

I have strong reasons for a preference for improvised music. The speed of the projection can vary, shortening or lengthening the film. An improvising musician can react to this variation in length, whereas a musician playing sheet music easily becomes asynchronous in such a situation. Improvised music, on the other hand, can stay as close as possible to the film narrative. In addition, written scores often create a distance, whereas improvisation produces a direct and unique dialogue with the flickering image on the white screen, each time it is played.


Interior Cinema Parisien Amsterdam ± 1925 (www.filmmuseum.nl)